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Spain will not accept NGO ship ‘Aquarius,’ which is carrying 141 rescued migrants

In June, the Spanish government offered safe port to the vessel, which was carrying 630 would-be immigrants

Migrants rescued by the ‘Aquarius’ on Friday.
Migrants rescued by the ‘Aquarius’ on Friday. REUTERS

The rescue boat Aquarius, which was denied entry to Italy and Malta in June, is once again looking for a safe place to dock. On Sunday, the humanitarian groups that run the ship, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, called on European governments to provide a “safe port, the closest possible, as dictated by the law” for the 141 migrants rescued on board.

The boat rescued the migrants from international waters on Friday with the help of Libya, but that country has said it “cannot offer a safe place” and ordered the boat to contact other countries, according to the NGOs.

Italy and Malta have refused the ‘Aquarius’ a safe port

The Spanish government does not appear to be willing – at least for now – to permit a rerun of what happened in June, when it offered safe port to the migrants on board the vessel. Official sources from La Moncloa prime ministerial palace said on Monday that “Spain is not the safest port, because it is not the closest according to what is set out under international law.”

The migrants on board the Aquarius were traveling from Libya to Italy in two wooden boats that capsized. Of the 141 people rescued, 67 say they are unaccompanied minors. Another six boys are traveling with at least one relative, according to the ship’s crew. More than a third come from Eritrea, where many young men have fled to avoid conscription, and from Somalia, one of the world’s most volatile countries.

The humanitarian ship says that it has been regularly updating maritime rescue coordination centers in Italy, Malta and Tunisia and recording all communication in a detailed log book. Once it arrived in the rescue zone in front of Libya, the ship says it contacted Italy and Malta to ask for a safe port. Authorities in Malta refused and Italian authorities did not answer.

The Aquarius is now the only rescue ship supervising the area off the coast of Libya where migrant ships pass en route to Europe and are known to capsize. It took over a few days ago from the Catalan ship Open Arms, which performed three rescue operations in July and August. The migrants rescued in these operations were brought to Spain.

The Spanish government is the only one in Europe which has unconditionally accepted migrants rescued at sea. Italy has banned all NGO ships carrying migrants from docking at its ports and criticized Spain for its “out-of-control” immigration policy. With Italy closing its doors to rescue ships, Spain has become the main route for migrants into Europe.

Of the 141 people rescued, 67 are unaccompanied minors

In June, Spanish ministers made clear that accepting the migrant ship was an exceptional move, and that Spain would not become a refuge for all the vessels rejected by Italy. However, from a political point of view, the operation was a complete success – not just at home, but also abroad, where it put Pedro Sánchez, the new Spanish prime minister, on the frontline of European politics.

According to the NGOs, the migrants rescued on Friday claim that “before being rescued by the Aquarius, five boats passed by without offering help.” “It seems that even the principal of helping those in danger at sea is at stake,” they added.

MSF and SOS Méditerranée, as well as humanitarian groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for more resources for rescue operations and a “clear and predictable disembarkation system.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met this weekend in Doñana in Andalusia to build a political front with France and Portugal that would advocate for a fairer distribution of migrants and refugees among EU countries.

After the Aquarius was turned back by Italy and Malta in June, Spain welcomed the 630 migrants on board and since then, it has received 148 more migrants rescued by Open Arms – 60 in July, 87 who arrived last Thursday, plus as a shipwrecked woman from Cameroon who was found next to the bodies of a woman and a child.

Aloys Vimard, MSF coordinator on Aquarius, has also complained that Libyan authorities, whose rescue coordination center is on an Italian ship in Tripoli, have ignored the humanitarian vessel for the past two days. The center “did not inform Aquarius of the ships in danger that it was aware of, even though we were in the area and have offered our help,” he said.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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